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Revealed: Australia's secret labour camps

Sydney Morning Herald - December 21, 2008

Connie Levett – It was a throwaway line from old Uncle Gordon: "We had a lot of 'Javos' in Wallangarra during the war."

That comment would set Jan Lingard's course for the next decade as she asked why more than 350 Indonesians were camped in the remote NSW-Queensland border town. And what were others doing behind wire in Cowra and Casino?

"It blew my mind," said Lingard, an Indonesian language academic who discovered 5500 "Javos", or Indonesians, were interned and later conscripted for the military effort between 1942 and 1947. Their stories are told for the first time in Lingard's book Refugees And Rebels: Indonesian Exiles In Wartime Australia.

Lingard spoke with Indonesian internees and the Australians who remembered them.

"It was a different kind of internment. Germans and Japanese were considered a security threat. We were at war with Germany and Japan but we were not at war with the Dutch East Indies [Indonesia's colonial name]. We were really interning them on behalf of the Dutch," Lingard says.

The first Indonesians interned at Cowra, in 1942, were 800 striking merchant seamen from Dutch ships. When the Dutch East Indies fell to Japan, the men demanded equal pay with Dutch and Australian counterparts to transport war armaments. They were knocked back, and shunted off to Cowra for their impudence. Because they could not be held there indefinitely, a deal was struck – return to the Dutch ships or be conscripted to military labour camps.

So it was that some of the seamen washed up in Uncle Gordon's home town, Wallangarra, cross-loading war supplies from NSW to Queensland trains because of the different rail gauges.

The most significant group of Indonesian internees to pass through Cowra were political prisoners, shipped from Dutch New Guinea as the Japanese marched south in 1943. Dutch authorities convinced Australia the men and their families, whom they described as communists, may assist the Japanese if left behind.

Transported from the steamy tropics to a bleak Cowra winter, nine died in the first three months. Lingard says the plan was never for permanent internment, but it took leaked reports of the Cowra deaths to force the Australian Government to action. Single men went to work camps in Casino, with freedom to move around the town, and the young women trained as nurses for the Dutch war effort.

The Dutch tried to portray the political internees as dangerous and uneducated but their Red Cross submissions for intervention were well-prepared, Lingard says. What the Dutch really wanted was to keep the nationalists away from the seamen.

In Casino, where they finally came together, Dutch fears were realised. After General Sukarno proclaimed independence on August 17, 1945, some demanded to be repatriated, they went on strike and declared they were no longer under Dutch jurisdiction. In response, the Dutch erected barbed wire around the camp, "making them genuine political prisoners".

The seamen, whose strike action led to their initial internment behind the wire in Cowra in 1942, were again on strike and again behind the wire, but now they were politically awakened. With the end of war in the Pacific, all the "Javos" were repatriated to their newly independent homeland.

From the jungle to Cowra's winter

Siti Chamsinah had never felt cold like it. Aged 17, she arrived at Cowra in June 1943 with her family, transported from their jungle detention camp in Dutch New Guinea to a new life.

They were political prisoners, exiled for 15 years to Tanah Merah, a remote jungle camp, by the Dutch because of her father's involvement in Indonesian nationalist politics. "In Cowra, I felt like a prisoner because of the fences and barbed wire at the camp. In Tanah Merah, the forest was our fence," recalls Siti,82.

She spent eight months in Cowra, constantly ill with malaria, bronchitis and flu. Behind the wire, she says living conditions were quite comfortable. The detainees were treated well and "could hold meetings to talk about what was happening in Indonesia".

In January 1944 Siti went to Melbourne to study nursing but did not complete the course. "I didn't feel like helping Dutch soldiers because they had invaded my country," she says. "The training came in handy later for my own people."

Siti has good memories of her time in Australia and says she did not experience racism. She remains in contact with one Melbourne nursing friend. They have exchanged letters for 60 years.